HR and unions’ relationship: reader responses to the research

Our exclusive research on the role of unions in the workplace, carried out in conjunction with the TUC (Personnel Today, 30 January) – which revealed that being a union representative can damage your career prospects – sparked a huge debate. Here is a selection of your comments.

Union reprs are chosen by the people – unlike those in HR

Interesting piece of research (Personnel Today, 30 January). My experience tells me that wise employers will use their union reps in the workplace and, of course, it is not unheard of for reps to migrate to HR.

HR is the obvious place to go, but often the individual feels unable to move because of the view taken by their colleagues that they may have ‘sold out’.

This is unfortunate as the resultant peer pressure probably stops more good people working in HR, and the profession can ill afford to lose this talent. The skills learned (representing fellow workers, negotiating, handling grievances and disciplinaries, analysing data and understanding complex business issues) are eminently transferable.

Paul Nowak makes a good point when he says: “Managers need to demonstrate practically that employees… will not lose out when it comes to career prospects.” This is best done by gaining a full understanding of the role of the union rep – not just those in the HR department, however, but all managers across the company.

Too often the good work done by reps is a secret – known only to HR and not broadcast more widely. Rather like the role of unions in general, we tend only to hear the bad news, while the good work done by thousands of reps every day rarely gets a mention.

So, what can be done?

First, let’s all agree that we need good, well-trained and motivated reps. Whatever their position in the union, they are first and foremost employees and should be seen as such. And they are not reps by magic. They have been chosen/elected by their workplace colleagues, endorsed by the employer, and facilitated by legislation.

Second, we should include, as part of the role of the union rep, the opportunity to discuss career options and progression as a matter of course.

Third, ensure that all managers in the company understand why they have a union, what its role is and why there are reps.

Not rocket science, but a good start.

Rory Murphy, HR consultant

Reps run rings around HR but benefit the business

As a senior/middle operational manager, CIPD-qualified and a union rep, I find that trade unions are a necessity to ensure correct procedures are followed by managers who are under pressure and have ever-decreasing and remote HR support.

Indeed, most of our reps can run rings around HR when it comes to knowing the law and applying it. This may seem an adversarial comment, but in the long run it keeps the organisation out of court and saves it big money.

Steve Woodward
Branch chairman, Highways Agency Eastern Branch, PCS

Militant tendency gives reps a bad reputation

I believe that being a union rep can damage your career prospects if an individual becomes too entrenched in the militant ‘them against us’ style of representation, which we see all too often in spite of the so-called partnership approach. What organisation wants to promote a person who sees it as the enemy?

However, I have seen representatives who use a collaborative approach where possible (while honouring the purpose of their union) be promoted to more senior positions.

Details supplied

Union reps are there to protect the employee

The aim of a company is to make a profit, and so it needs resources. Whether they are assets or liabilities is a point Tony Pettengell raised in his ‘Off Message’ article, Personnel Today, 13 February): “Are employees businesses’ greatest asset, or just their cheapest?”

To say this isn’t the case is to be in denial. There will be a continuum between HR departments that are – or HR staff who are – ‘pink and fluffy’ at one end, and those that are ‘blue steel’ at the other. But, the ‘pink and fluffy’ can’t deny the hard economic reality of the ‘resourcing’ role, and it could be argued the ‘blue steelers’ need to understand the reality of the human person, and this is something people in HR are clearly battling with. But possibly, that is why a union is required – the union as protector HR as exploiter.

So, if you want to stand up for rights, maybe become a union rep and not a member of an HR team.

It’s a bit like the students who go to university to read psychology, only to be disappointed when they discover what they really wanted to do was psychotherapy, but confused the roles of the disciplines.

Paul Rodden, HR professional


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